Last week I mentioned some products that provide value-added functionality for existing web conferencing software. In that case, the added capabilities dealt with registration management, communications with attendees, reporting and analysis. These products mostly work before and after the meeting session itself - the primary integration point with vendor software such as WebEx or Live Meeting is getting people into the meeting room.
This started me thinking about vendors allowing third parties to add functionality inside the conferencing session. It’s unusual to see this kind of open architecture… For a number of reasons.
Once you let someone else integrate with your code and rely on particular implementations, it hamstrings your development team on making future changes. Now you have partner companies and customers who rely on things working a certain way. Anything you change could potentially disrupt the add-on functionality. You get blamed… “But it worked before! Don’t you do backwards compatibility testing?” Even though the software that doesn’t work is not your responsibility and not yours to test.
The add-on functionality (especially if it impacts the attendee experience) becomes seen as part of your product. Meeting attendees don’t have an interest in separating who built what part of the product. They just see a piece of software that they are using. If the add-on company screws up in some way, it impacts the way your software is perceived. That’s a scary thought! This extends out to your online help and technical support lines, which may be called upon (unjustly or not) when users have a problem with the add-on.
On the plus side, allowing an open architecture and easy add-on integration can potentially make your software more attractive as a platform that other companies want to work with (both partners and customers). Done right, it can give you an advantage over closed architectures that frustrate users. The classic battle in the world of internet browsers is Microsoft Internet Explorer versus Firefox. While IE permits companies to add an extra toolbar to the menu, Firefox lets software companies write add-ins that fundamentally change the user experience.
The closest analog to Firefox that I have seen in the world of web conferencing is Adobe Acrobat Connect Pro. It lets partner companies write Flash applications that change fundamental user experiences in the product. I have run meetings where I use an interactive world map that lets participants put in their location and personal information. Everyone can scroll and zoom the map individually to see where others are attending from. That’s cute functionality, and Adobe had nothing to do with it.
There is a company called Refined Data that has an entire software business devoted to Connect Pro add-ons. Customers can add new functionality associated with streaming video, audience feedback, “green savings” calculators, and presenter interface management.
DimDim is another conferencing company that has taken the open integration route. DimDim is an open source project that freely publishes their API. So far their integrations page shows tie-ins with email, CRM, and learning management applications.
I can certainly see the arguments for and against opening your software to third-party developers. The nice thing about the marketplace is that there is room for all approaches. If extensibility and third-party integration is important to you as a user, make sure to ask your vendor about it. If standardization and consistency is a priority for you, it becomes a consideration on the other side of the argument.